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NATO Deputy Chief Urges Russia To Agree To 'Honest' Dialogue To Defuse Tensions.

NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoana has called on Russian officials to establish a "solid, transparent, and honest dialogue" with the Western military alliance amid persistent high tensions between Moscow and the West over issues including its seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and the ongoing conflict in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

More recently, Russia has been accused of helping its ally, Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, orchestrate a border crisis with the European Union's eastern member states -- which the Kremlin denies.

Western countries have also expressed concerns over a Russian military buildup close to Ukraine's borders in recent weeks, while Moscow has been angered by stepped up naval visits to the Black Sea by NATO member states.

In an interview with RFE/RL , Geoana said that despite relations being at the lowest level since the end of the Cold War, NATO officials "are seeking and looking forward to continuing discussions with their Russian counterparts" on both the political and military levels.

"We stand ready to continuing and urging Russia to come back to the NATO-Russia Council," the main forum for dialogue between the two sides, he said.

"For the time being, Russia is turning down our invitations, but we hope that they realize the merit of having a solid, transparent, and honest dialogue with NATO."

Kremlin-backed separatists continue to control wide swaths of eastern Ukraine in a seven-year conflict that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014. The war erupted after Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea in the Black Sea in March 2014.

Periodic buildups of Russian troops in the area have set off alarms in Kyiv and Western capitals. Earlier this month, Ukraine said up to 90,000 Russian troops remained near its border despite the end of military drills, triggering calls for Russia to be transparent about its intentions.

Geoana said he would not speculate about the reasons behind such "unusual activities" by the Russian military around Ukraine, but insisted that NATO was "vigilant" and "very firm in deterring and defending against any threat from any direction."

Last week, the Kremlin vowed to safeguard its borders in the face of actions by countries trying to "contain" Russia, including in the Black Sea region. Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also claimed that "the movement of our armed forces on our territory should not be a cause for concern."

But Geoana rejected Russian suggestions that NATO is a potential threat to the country as "just not true," saying, "Everything we do in the Black Sea or on the eastern flank of NATO is purely defensive and perfectly transparent."

Noting that NATO has three member states in the region -- Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey -- as well as two "very important partners" -- Ukraine and Georgia -- the NATO deputy chief said, "There's absolutely no surprise to anyone when we do air policing, when we do maritime presence in the Black Sea."

"And in the end, it was not NATO, we didn't occupy Crimea or invade eastern Ukraine, so everything we have done after 2014 was purely defensive, deterrence, and defense, as we should, but always being careful of not being provocative or giving a sense of misinterpretation."

Moscow has been working closely with its ally in Minsk amid a border crisis as thousands of third-country migrants the European Union accuses Lukashenka of "weaponizing" are trapped along Belarus's western borders with Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania.

The EU has accused Lukashenka of flying in migrants and funneling them to the bloc's borders -- particularly on the Polish frontier -- to retaliate against Brussels for sanctions imposed over a sweeping crackdown on the political opposition, civil society, and independent media since last year's disputed presidential election.

"This is something that is part of a new arsenal of hybrid tools that Belarus is using" against the NATO and EU member states, according to Geoana.

"And of course, knowing the close relationship and partnership between Belarus and the Russian Federation, we also know that there is, you know, a way in which this is not indifferent or unknown to Moscow."

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